Duo's elite production comes from differing processes at the plate
By David Adler
Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado's brilliant yin and yang starts hours before they take over a game, in batting-practice showcases of dueling approaches that are equally effective and representative of why each is an elite hitter in the National League.
Blackmon sprays line drives to left and center field with authority and regularity. It's a process three to four years in the making, showing the bat skill of the man whose 154 hits top the NL as the Rockies push for the postseason. But at the end of his BP round, Blackmon turns on the ball and drives it over the right-field fence, a reminder of his home run power -- and where it lies.
"In my work, I'm trying to hit more balls to the middle of the field, hit them harder back up the middle," Blackmon told MLB.com. "I think that carries over to the games. I'm getting a lot of hits in the middle of the field. But I still think -- like most guys -- my best power, my most bat speed, is going to be to the pull side."
Arenado, meanwhile, won't let you forget that. He launches ball after ball out to left, towering shots. That is Arenado's goal and his strength as a hitter, the approach that's produced back-to-back NL home run crowns.
"I'm a pull guy. I like to pull the baseball. It's just my style," Arenado said. "I want to drive the ball out."
These two hitters are the backbone of Colorado's lineup, Blackmon hitting first and Arenado third, propelling them to a hold on a Wild Card slot. Blackmon is batting .333 with 27 home runs and a Major League-leading 102 runs scored, Arenado .315 with 25 homers and an MLB-leading 98 RBIs.
They're complementary stat lines, reflective of lineup position and how the players fulfill their driving roles in the Rockies' offense. Blackmon starts the run creation, Arenado finishes it. But what's interesting is that their All-Star production mirrors one another's, yet results from such divergent processes.
Arenado and Blackmon share their pull-oriented power. Of their 50 over-the-wall homers in 2017 (Blackmon has two inside-the-parkers), only five are to the opposite field. Since Statcast™ started tracking in '15, Arenado has pulled 97 of 108 homers, Blackmon 65 of 73. Both rank among the 10 highest pull rates for righties and lefties, respectively.
But this year, the non-home run contact has changed for both. Arenado and Blackmon are going away from dead pull for base hits, using the middle of the field and the opposite field -- and if they continue to do so, it's possible some home runs could follow. Their catalysts for the change, though, are different.
Blackmon has been gradually trying to broaden his spray while maintaining pull power. As he's found the balance, it's paid off with extra-base hits where he didn't used to drive them -- 18 of his 37 doubles and triples this season (49 percent) have been launched to center or left field, compared to 30 percent last year and 40 percent in 2015. Of Blackmon's non-home run batted balls classified as "barrels" or "solid contact" -- Statcast™'s most productive levels of contact -- 61 percent have been to center or left, vs. 41 percent in '16 and 53 percent in '15.
"It's probably getting a little better year after year," Blackmon said. "Part of it's being able to hit balls hard the other way with backspin in BP -- and I can see them carrying further and further each year. The other part is just feeling like I can cover the whole plate, hit balls that are outside the other way and hit balls that are inside to the pull side."
Arenado wants to pull. It's who he is. But 40-homer seasons change how pitchers go after you. This year, Arenado noticed them attacking away, especially with sliders.
"Believe me: I want to drive the ball out to left field, left-center," Arenado said. "But I'm also not getting the same pitches I've gotten in the last couple of years. I've got to make that adjustment and get my hits, and when they make mistakes, take advantage."
Early on, Arenado felt himself getting his hits the other way, but not powering the ball with backspin to left like he was accustomed to. At first, he thought he was just out in front, which a few swing-mechanic tweaks would fix. But Arenado quickly realized pitchers' role. His rate of pitches on the outer third and away, as tracked by Statcast™, has risen from under 49 percent to close to 55 percent from 2015-17.
That sent Arenado to the film. In the Rockies' video room or lying in his hotel, he watches what pitchers have been doing to him to anticipate what they'll do next. And Arenado likely sees what Blackmon sees.
"I think people are just scared of Nolan," Blackmon said, "so they want to stay away from his power. He's had to make those adjustments and get hits out over the plate."
Not just hits, but damage. Of Arenado's 40 doubles and triples, 55 percent have been to center or right field, up from around 40 percent in each of the past two seasons. Statcast™ has tracked 62 percent of his non-homer barrels and solid contact as going to center or right, vs. 49 percent in 2016 and 39 percent in '15.
But Blackmon merits fear, too. As he's become a complete hitter, he's sensed changes in how he's being worked.
"It's less aggressive. Like, I'll see guys that fall behind in the count be less willing to come back over the middle," Blackmon said. "I think guys are less likely to double, triple up on the fastballs than in years past."
Blackmon and Arenado hit, pitchers adjust, and they adjust in turn. It's the nature of baseball. The guys trying to get them out haven't found a good answer yet. Colorado's All-Star duo, through each's own methods, keeps producing.
"I think it's just becoming multidimensional in how you hit," Rockies manager Bud Black said. "Charlie and Nolan are two of our guys who take that to the max, in what they're trying to do to accumulate hits."
David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.